It’s Not About You

We sat across a table from another with a paper between us, stuck as the object in a discussion founded in two completely different perspectives. He thought he was giving me necessary advice. I thought he was trying to dash my hopes and dreams. He gave what he thought was constructive criticism, yet somehow I missed out on the constructive part. Our conversation lasted less than 15 minutes, and only now do I realize how fundamental a shift that conversation had in the way I approached the world.

The unfortunate paper that lay between us on our table outside the student union was a copy of my most recent essay about Poe’s, “The Raven”. My adversary? Summer Session TA #1. This was my first English class after freshmen general education requirements and my dear TA felt inclined to offer me a reality check. A reality check I desperately needed, might I add.

I entered college the year before after 13 years of teachers telling me how wonderful and brilliant I was. Academically, I was capable of no wrongs. My classmates would cheer when they found out they scored higher than me on a test. It sounds silly now, but I built a great deal of my sense of self on being that star student. I loved feeling special, and soaked in the praise of teachers – especially when it came to my writing ability.

Moving from my small town to a university certainly humbled my inflated ego. I quickly found myself surrounded by many people smarter than I, and the tone of feedback I got from instructors downgraded significantly. I had been used to writing lengthy introductions to my papers where I related what the author said to some experience in my life. I used fanciful language and analogies that did not make sense. My essays were a celebration of my own ability, trophies that I clung to in my new environment.

This TA was the only one who ever called me on my inflated sense of self. He explained to me that I needed to cut out everything that distracted from the main point of the essay, and that I needed to stick to the facts of research that I referenced from critics who actually knew that they were talking about when expositing Poe’s masterpiece. Ouch.

His words stung, cutting to the core of the identity I’d built, and toppling the temple of self I worshipped with every assignment. No longer did I have a hometown fan club. Now, I was just one more student in the university system, and my voice didn’t matter.


I hated hearing what he said that day, but now I am so glad he did. Another instructor might not have cared so much to tell me to ‘cut the crap’ and would have left me alone without teaching me the lesson I really needed to learn. At this point, I couldn’t care less about “The Raven”, but I couldn’t care more about the lesson that this great big world isn’t all about me.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not depreciating my ability to write. I’m simply explaining that I needed to learn I wasn’t The Shiz. I had a lot of learning left to do and if I allowed myself to stay stuck in a mentality that I was already good enough, I would have missed out on many valuable lessons that came after this slap in the face.

I haven’t found many people who are bold enough to call me out when I need an attitude adjustment. Or of those who do have the boldness, many don’t have the grace to do well. I hope to have more of those people in my life. I recognize the need for them now. If I’m not aware of areas where I need to grow, growth isn’t going to happen. If I’m wrapped up in the idea that I am awesome and special, I am going to miss out on celebrating the excellence of the people that surround me.

Next Saturday morning I board a flight for Washington D.C. where I will be attending a policy institute meeting and collaborating with my counterparts from across the country. This opportunity is HUGE for a girl from our little town, and I couldn’t be more excited. Okay. If it was a little later in the year and not snowing, I’d be more excited. But still. I see this as the perfect opportunity to learn, this time from a perspective of knowing that there is a ton of information for me to absorb and bring back with me.

There are many ways that I still struggle with letting go of the idea that I am the center of the universe (don’t we all?) but I’ve realized that when I am in a place of greater humility, I am open to more of the wonderful insights that people have to offer. I want to catch all of them that I can, and to surround myself with others seeking growth from wherever they currently find themselves.

Journey with me?